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New weapons, new wars

November 24, 2012

THROUGHOUT history, the emergence of new and more effective weapons has usually led to war or escalated violence.

Each new weapon — the broadsword, lance, longbow, siege machine, heavy cavalry, gunpowder, cannons, repeating rifle, machine-gun, battle tank, aeroplane, helicopter, submarines, ballistic and cruise missile — in its time changed military equations and led to aggression by those who had gained the military advantage, even if temporarily.

Unfortunately, nuclear weapons were no exception. On the other hand, other than decisive defeat or victory, wars ended, or were avoided, when military power, and the weapons which are its essential components, were equally matched.

In the modern world, the asymmetry of military power and weapons systems has grown dramatically. Smaller and poorer nations have little or no capacity to defend themselves against the superior military power of larger and more technologically advanced states.

Even the militaries of mid-sized states are unable to defend themselves against the military prowess of the great powers, specially the United States. Saddam Hussein’s military crumbled twice in short order. For most states and groups confronting superior power and weapons, the only recourse is asymmetric warfare.

Referring to Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama declared in his re-election victory speech that “a decade of war is ending”. However, there is a clear and present danger that the past decade of mainly land wars could be replaced by wars fought in the skies and cyber space with even more deadly consequences.

Several new weapons have been or are about to be developed, deployed or used which may yield this outcome: attack drones, anti-ballistic missiles, cyber weapons and stealth, laser and space weapons technologies. Of these, drones, ABM systems and cyber weapons, have already begun to enhance the proclivity of their possessors to use force.

The use of the Predator and Reaper drones by US forces on the Pakistan-Afghan border has increased the frequency and lethality of attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents. No doubt, this capability has contributed to the US decision to withdraw its land forces from Afghanistan. But, as the land war draws to a close, there will be an inevitable tendency for the US to rely ever more on drones to continue to support the regime or factions it leaves behind in Afghanistan.

There is a parallel concern in Islamabad that drones could be used for ‘precision’ strikes against Pakistan’s strategic capabilities. Overcoming this suspicion may be key to future Pakistan-US cooperation.

Drones may also become a weapon of choice if and when Western powers decide to play a more active role in support of the opposition forces in Syria. However, their use would lead to an escalation of the conflict and its extension to neighbouring countries.

Drone capabilities are being rapidly developed by other powers. China, India and Pakistan may soon have a capability that matches that of the US. No doubt, Iran will work overtime to reverse-engineer the US drone it captured.

There will be considerable temptation for all these powers to use drones against insurgents and other ‘difficult’ targets, rather than seek political solutions. The insurgents will find asymmetric means — IEDs, suicide attacks — to respond. Internal and cross-border conflicts would thus expand and be prolonged.

Cyberwar is also a reality now. The so-called Stuxnet virus, widely believed to have been used by the US and/or Israel to crash Iran’s centrifuges, is the most celebrated contemporary case of cyberwar. But the US secretary of defence, in a recent speech, alluded to cyber attacks on the US itself. There is no doubt that this covert war is being waged on a wide front, especially among the most advanced ‘IT powers’.

The escalation of this ‘war’, or its ‘crossover’ into the realm of physical conflict is a constant danger. Thus, in response to crashing centrifuges or escalating economic sanctions, the target country could launch a cyber strike against the presumed adversary to bring down its electrical grid or disrupt civil air traffic.

In the absence of international control, states will presume that their military command and control systems are under cyber attack. They may delegate military decisions, like the launch of tactical missiles, to junior commanders, multiplying the likelihood of a conflict and its instant escalation. Detection of presumed cyber attacks could also lead to war by miscalculation.

The third ‘new’ weapon — anti-ballistic missiles — is potentially the most destabilising.

Some days ago, the New York Times carried an article asserting that Israel’s recent Gaza operation was designed as a “test” for Israel’s anti-ballistic missile systems against Iranian missiles. The article leads to the disturbing presumption that the greater the success of Israel’s Iron Dome ABM system, the greater the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This would be the clearest illustration of how a so-called ‘defensive’ system can contribute to ‘offensive’ action.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union expressly limited ABM systems to one on each side. They agreed that their widespread deployment would destabilise ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ and nuclear deterrence. However, the faster technological development of ABM systems by the US and the decline and disappearance of the Soviet Union enabled the US to discard the ABM treaty and its restraints.

Now, there is every likelihood that ABM systems will proliferate. The US is deploying ABM systems against tactical, medium and long-range missiles, in the Arab part of the Gulf as well as in Europe. The proposed European deployment has evoked a strong response from Moscow which believes that these ABM deployments are aimed principally to neutralise Russia’s strategic capabilities. Intentions to deploy similar systems in Asia will no doubt evince opposition from Beijing. The stability of great power nuclear deterrence could be in jeopardy.

Closer to home, India too is in the process of acquiring advanced ABM systems. This could erode ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ between Pakistan and India. To preserve the credibility of nuclear deterrence, Pakistan would have a choice: follow the extremely expensive path of acquiring ABM systems also, or the cheaper route of multiplying the number of offensive missiles and nuclear warheads.

Western analysts have not explained this as the reason for Pakistan’s enlargement of fissile material production. Adding ABM systems to the uncertain nuclear and missile equations in South Asia is equivalent to throwing a match into a tinderbox.

It is surprising that the international community has taken no steps to address the danger of new wars posed by these new weapons. The Geneva Conference on Disarmament — the sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum — remains preoccupied by the agenda of Western powers — a treaty to halt fissile material production — while nudging aside calls for nuclear and space disarmament.

It is time that the Geneva body turned its attention to controlling those new and emerging weapons which pose a real and present threat to peace and security. It should put on its agenda and consider, as a priority, measures to regulate and control the deployment and use of drones, cyberwar and anti-ballistic missiles.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.